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Vol. 20 No. 6 · 19 March 1998

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Brief Shining Moments

Christopher Hitchens writes in the latest recycling of his anti-Kennedy rants (LRB, 19 February) that it was William Manchester on whom Jacqueline Kennedy planted the Camelot metaphor. This is typical both of Hitchens’s hopeless ignorance of American affairs and of his preference for rant over fact. The rest of us think that Mrs Kennedy was planting the Camelot idea on Theodore H. White. As for those ‘bow-tied American scholars’ by whom, Hitchens proclaims, ‘“Camelot" is always cited without a breath of irony,’ I would suggest that, if Hitchens could stop ranting long enough to read anything, he might look at the derision cast on the Camelot idea on pages 406-7 of the bow-tied Cycles of American History, including the remark that Camelot was hardly ‘a place known for marital fidelity’. Or perhaps Hitchens doesn’t get irony.

Hitchens must be the only journalist more gullible than Seymour Hersh, whose dreadful book he cites respectfully, as if Hersh’s fantasies had any more than an accidental connection with reality. Seymour Hersh, who on page 123 of The Dark Side of Camelot has Lyndon Johnson, himself not a man known for marital fidelity, using Kennedy’s sexual vagaries to blackmail his way onto the Democratic ticket in 1960 – and then on page 406 about to be dropped from the 1964 ticket, his blackmail power evidently expiring, to make way for Robert Kennedy (though, as any schoolchild should know, if Hersh and Hitchens don’t, the American Constitution requires the President and Vice-President to be from different states, and both Kennedys were then from Massachusetts)? Seymour Hersh, whose notion that the mobster Sam Giancana was the political boss of Chicago is an insult to the memory of Mayor Richard Daley? Seymour Hersh, who on page 4 has Kennedy sending money to the Mob and on page 140 has the Mob sending money to Kennedy without any explanation as to why either needed money from the other? Seymour Hersh, who fell for the forged Marilyn Monroe documents even though they had zip codes years before zip codes were invented? Christopher Hitchens is alone (except for Hersh) as a true believer in The Dark Side of Camelot.

I won’t go into all Hitchens’s fumbles, but one persisting theme in his anti-Kennedy rants is the systematic exoneration of President Eisenhower and his Administration. You would not gather it from his piece, but it was the Eisenhower Administration, not the Kennedy Administration, that recruited mobsters to assassinate Castro. It was the Eisenhower Administration, not the Kennedy Administration, that contemplated the assassination of Lumumba in the Congo (he was killed by the Tshombe crowd a few days after Kennedy assumed office). It was the Eisenhower Administration that planned the Bay of Pigs, and it was Ike himself who, in their last meeting before the Inauguration, urged Kennedy to go full speed ahead.

Hitchens goes on about ‘the sick Kennedy obsession with Cuba’. If Cuba was Kennedy’s obsession, the Soviet nuclear missiles provided him with the best possible pretext for invading the country and smashing Castro for ever. But Robert Kennedy led the fight against a sneak attack, and John Kennedy, overruling the Joint Chiefs of Staff, made the decision against a military response. A year after the missile crisis, Kennedy was even exploring through Ambassador William Attwood (US) and Ambassador Carlos Lechuga (Cuba), as well as through Jean Daniel of Le Nouvel Observateur, the possibility of normalising relations with Cuba. Some sick obsession!

Let us rather mourn a really sick obsession – Christopher Hitchens’s obsession with John F. Kennedy.

Arthur Schlesinger Jr
New York

Christopher Hitchens writes: In my article I gave an imaginary instance, drawn from the imaginative work of Arthur Schlesinger, of the means by which an apologist for JFK might have proved that, had ‘He’ lived, the Bay of Pigs invasion would not have taken place. Some readers may have found this counterfactual exercise too strenuous, or too cynical. But here, prompt upon its hour, is a letter from Pierre Salinger in the Nation of 16 February:

You will remember that I was President Kennedy’s press secretary. Five days before he was assassinated, he had a meeting at the White House with a French journalist, Jean Daniel, now editor of France’s most important news magazine, Le Nouvel Observateur. During the meeting, Kennedy found out that Daniel was on his way to Havana for an interview with Fidel Castro. Kennedy asked Daniel to tell Castro that he was now ready to negotiate normal relations with Cuba and drop the embargo. Daniel was in a meeting with Castro when the phone rang and Castro discovered that Kennedy had been assassinated.

If Kennedy had lived, I am confident he would have negotiated that agreement and dropped the embargo, because he was upset with the way the Soviet Union was playing a strong role in Cuba and Latin America. Cuba would be a different country now and Castro would not be in power anymore.

There have since been seven other Presidents, three of them Democrats, who have failed to lift the embargo. In the case of the first post-Cold War Democrat, who ran against George Bush from the right on the issue of Cuba – just as Kennedy did against Eisenhower – the embargo has been extended to include legally dubious sanctions even on third countries trading with Havana.

Mr Salinger’s choice of the word ‘upset’ to describe his hero’s view of Cuba and the former Soviet Union is a collector’s item for those of us who study the mania of the JFK cult, and the imperviousness of its remaining devotees.

So no wonder that Arthur Schlesinger Jr, in dreaming the same dream, limits himself to the feeble word ‘exploring’. As he shows even in the supposedly saving citation from his own book, euphemism is a necessity for the Kennedy fan. I’m mainly struck by what he does not contest – the Judith Campbell Exner/Mob connection; the subversion of Guyana; the bugging of Martin Luther King; the timing of a murder plot to coincide with the Bay of Pigs; the killings of Diem in Saigon and Trujillo in the Dominican Republic. On these and other matters he won’t come out to play anymore.

Future historians will no doubt be grateful for the information that the Bay of Pigs invasion, actually executed by Kennedy, was ‘planned’ by the Eisenhower Administration. I emphasised that myself, adding for the sake of the record that Kennedy fought an election on the claim – which he knew to be a lie – that Eisenhower and Nixon had gone soft on Castro. If Kennedy had ordered a nuclear strike, Schlesinger’s last fawning words would doubtless have been that it was Eisenhower who built the bombs and missiles in the first place.

The fact that Eisenhower and Nixon also flirted with the Mafia and would probably have killed Lumumba does not in the least undermine the point of my article, which almost pedantically stressed the permanent element of ‘bipartisanship’ in these matters. It’s contemptible of Schlesinger to seek apology for the state crimes of his patrons with the excuse that ‘everyone does it,’ just as it’s laughable of him, having made a career out of scraping acquaintance with the divine Kennedy boys, to accuse me of being the obsessed one.

Seymour Hersh can stick up for himself, but I did point out that he’d been briefly gulled by a false Monroe trail before he recovered his balance. As to whether Giancana or Daley was the Capo de tutti capi in Chicago, I leave it to Schlesinger’s expertise.

To Mr Seabright I would say, or rather repeat, that sleeping with a capo’s mistress and giving her a private line to the White House was at the very least a ‘suggestive cross-over’. As for Vernon Jordan’s current role – it’s not the lipstick, stupid. It’s the Revlon connection.

Mr Meadmore does not convince me that Taylor Branch, a very scrupulous historian and a very staunch defender of the King legacy, would have dreamt of including such a painful story unless his honesty had compelled him to acknowledge its truth. ‘FBI officials’ have been known, though usually off the record, to be veracious. On the second eavesdrop, had King been quoted as saying, ‘I am a Communist’ – the words Hoover wanted to hear – no one would have credited them. But he admired Marx’s writings and had many good Marxist friends, and might have said something of the kind without (call me old-fashioned if you will) compromising himself.

I abase myself for confusing Pierre Schlesinger and Arthur Salinger Jr, just as I’m sorry to have mixed up Theodore Manchester with William White. But the Kennedy hydra sometimes has that hypnotic effect, even as its many stumps are serially cauterised by the slow emergence of true record.

Did I miss something, or was Christopher Hitchens’s rubbishing of the claim that ‘sexual conduct’ has ‘little to do with leadership capabilities’ unsupported by any of the evidence in the rest of his piece about Kennedy? The article amasses such overwhelming reasons to despise Kennedy on familiarly political grounds that it’s puzzling why Hitchens thinks anything is added by the sneer that he was also a ‘serial fornicator’. Saying there’s a ‘suggestive crossover’ between the two doesn’t look like an argument to me. As for the moral Hitchens draws for today’s Presidency, if Vernon Jordan has been procuring ‘hush-money and soft jobs for friendly witnesses’ it hardly matters whether his company produces lipstick or ball-bearings. Would the latter be a suggestive cross-over too?

Does Hitchens think Kennedy would have been improved as a President by having to endure continual interrogation by the press and judiciary about his sexual relationships? Does he think Clinton’s Presidency has been improved by having to answer any questions about his past or present liaisons that cross suggestively over into an Independent Prosecutor’s mind? Can Hitchens suggest a single reason why the knowledge that a President has been adulterous should lead voters to make better informed judgments about the President’s fitness for office than could be made on the basis of more straightforwardly political information such as that contained in the bulk of Hitchens’s own article? Might not a moratorium on such questions remove at least one inducement to the kind of secrecy and manipulation that constitute an uncontentious political threat?

Paul Seabright
Cambridge University

Christopher Hitchens has a natural propensity to turn things upside down to see them right way up. In his latest article, only five of the 22 paragraphs are free of factual error. My main objection, however, is to his credulity and naivety in believing Taylor Branch’s story about Martin Luther King remarking of Mrs Kennedy: ‘Look at her. Sucking him off one last time.’

Of King’s womanising, his biographer David Garrow quotes King himself, to a friend: ‘I’m away from home 25 to 27 days a month. Fucking’s a form of anxiety reduction.’ But for Taylor Branch’s story no verification is offered beyond the ridiculous ‘Author’s interviews with FBI officials.’ Branch has heard no tape-recording that might exist. Doctored or not, the surveillance data are now sealed by court order. Branch and Hitchens may care to reflect on the fact that, to please their boss Hoover, FBI agents also reported King as saying to a friend: ‘I am a Marxist.’

Michael Meadmore
London W12

Christopher Hitchens’s discussion of the Kennedy phenomenon reminds me of the contribution of the television serial Dallas in the late Seventies and early Eighties to maintaining an idealised picture of the man and his family in the American mind. The parallels are unmistakable: the persistent question, Who killed JFK in Dallas?, was echoed in the cliffhanging, Who shot JR in Dallas?; each man was a member of a powerful family with a brother called Bobby; each a womaniser; and so on. The serial presumably provided a distraction from the painful curiosity caused by the shocking revelations about the charismatic President.

Lorne Loxterkamp
Braunton, Devon

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